Nearly a year into his first year as president, Donald Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at an international gathering, and the American leader told reporters that he spoke with Putin about alleged Russian interference in our elections.
Trump said that he had “two or three” brief conversations with Putin mostly centered on the war in Syria, but added that he pressed the Russian leader on Moscow’s role in attempting to interfere in the 2016 election.
“He said he didn’t meddle,” Trump said, answering questions in the press cabin on Air Force One. “I asked him again. You can only ask so many times…. He said he absolutely did not meddle in our election.”
The Republican added, in reference to his Russian counterpart, “He did not do what they are saying he did.”
Actually, yes, he did.
Even before Trump took office, U.S. intelligence professionals informed him about Russian attacks on American elections. He refused to believe them. As president, U.S. intelligence agencies continued to tell Trump what happened. He wouldn’t listen.
In fact, the American president didn’t just play the role of skeptic; he publicly repeated Putin’s denials, praised their “strength” and “power,” and presented the Russian’s claims as if they were true.
It’s against this backdrop that Trump and his allies are celebrating Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s findings – or more accurately, Attorney General William Barr’s summary of Mueller’s findings. But I’m curious: does the president agree with everything in Barr’s memo?
Because according to the attorney general, Mueller’s report leaves no doubt that Russia was responsible for executing an operation against the 2016 elections.
The most charitable explanation has long been one of fear: perhaps Trump was afraid to admit what was plainly true because it would undermine the legitimacy of his victory. If the Republican admitted that he won an election in which a foreign adversary tried to tip the scales in his favor, Trump’s win would be marred in history with an asterisk.
Sure, he prevailed, history books would say, but he had a little outside help from the Kremlin.
But even if that was Trump’s reason for denying Russia’s interference, the American president’s posture is even more difficult to maintain now.
The White House wants the public to accept Bill Barr’s assessment as fact, but to do so would mean to also accept as fact the conclusion that Moscow played a role in putting Trump in power.
The principle talking point in Republican circles this morning is that the president didn’t conspire with our Russian attackers. That, of course, is a far cry from Trump’s original claim that there were no Russian attackers.